Juneteenth Is Our July 4th, and Brands Should Recognize Its Spirit of Resilience

Image of a Black woman smiling in front of a colorful background of VMLY&R logos

June 18, 2021

The following article by Myron King, North American chief integration officer at VMLY&R, was published by Adweek. Click here to read the article on The Drum website.

 

Reluctance to authentically embrace BIPOC holidays will push those consumers away

I don’t know about you, but as we emerge from Covid-19 protocols and gently re-enter offices and in-person meetings, I almost feel the need to greet my 3D colleagues with a super-celebratory greeting. And thanks to recently passed legislation, we are on the brink of being able to say “happy Juneteenth” nationwide.

This gives me great joy and satisfaction, and I commend those that began acknowledging June 19 as a corporate holiday last year. 

For those who don’t know, Juneteenth acknowledges the date that more than 250,000 enslaved people in and around Galveston, Texas, were made aware of their freedom. 

While their liberation had been signed into law by the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, these people didn’t receive word until June 19, 1865—two and a half years later. And that news didn’t arrive by way of telegram, stagecoach or carrier pigeon. It came via 2,000 rifles wielded by Union soldiers enforcing the federal mandate in the Confederacy’s westernmost state.

Recognizing Juneteenth may seem like checking a box to those cynical of or fatigued by corporate DEI work. But for me, that a holiday critically important to Black American heritage and identity is also important to agencies and brands sends a positive—and heretofore unheard of—message of acknowledgment. 

Here are three ways brands can remain authentic when observing Juneteenth:

Embrace the price tag

The price of a day off barely accounts for a fraction of the contribution BIPOC employees make to the financial and cultural bottom line of companies. BIPOC people have been partners to a nation that has commoditized our labor and co-opted our contributions for generations. Across food, music, art, fashion, language and behaviors, the question of appreciation versus appropriation must be asked and answered—especially as America draws ever-closer to becoming a multicultural majority. Companies should realize that this holiday is about so much more than possible profit loss.

More is better

Those agencies and brands that do more than simply give employees the day off send an even brighter beacon and message. Engaging employee resource groups (ERGs) broadly and enabling BIPOC ERGs specifically to craft events, programming and content that they deem relevant, appropriate and valuable is a surefire way to make lasting impact. These moments bear dividends in terms of talent recruitment, employee retention and engagement and organizational visibility.

America’s other Fourth of July

I remember being told as a child that Juneteenth was our July Fourth. 

“Our July Fourth is whack,” my 5-year-old self said, noting the lack of fireworks. My grandmother replied, “Baby, we may not shoot fireworks or get the day off, but it’s the day all of us became free, and ain’t nothing ‘whack’ about that.”

The “all of us” part stuck with me all these years later. It also reiterates what last June taught us: that hurt, harm and injustice to one of us is hurt, harm and injustice to all of us. Change will take all of us, and none of us can be passive in that pursuit. 

For brands and agencies, deeper understanding and embracing what Juneteenth and events like it leads to having a direct connection to BIPOC employees’ sense of belonging. Moreover, it amplifies our support of these brands.

Juneteenth is a holiday about silver linings, amplifying good over bad and hope over sorrow. It’s a celebration of resilience in the face of circumstances that have been far too slow to change. It’s about the promise of self-determination in a country where perceived threat tends to outweigh perceived value.

Understand that, and you’ll make every Juneteenth one for your clients, customers and constituents to remember.